It's been months since Peyton Manning signed with Denver and football fans have had an entire preseason, four nationally televised games and the usual slew of commercials to see him in his new duds.
But when the Broncos meet the Patriots on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, it's still going to be plenty strange watching Manning don a Broncos uniform in this battle of 2-2 teams. The orange and navy blue and those silly, Nike collar-looking things on the new jerseys aren't yet seared into the old memory banks quite the way his old Colts getup still is.
Regardless of what he's wearing though, this game marks a huge challenge for the Pats, one they will have to be well prepared for if they want to move over the .500 threshold and into a power position in the AFC race.
While the Pats will have their hands full on defense, particularly against the pass, the Broncos' defense is nothing to sneeze at either. Denver is known for its ability to get after the quarterback thanks to pass rushing demons like Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Still, it's tough to think too much about defense when a couple of guys like Manning and Tom Brady are involved. Those two have seen their respective teams wage so many battles against one another through the years, it hardly matters that one of them has changed addresses. Sunday's tilt looks from this distance like it will be plenty more of the same.
So with that, let's get into a few of the more intriguing match ups this game has to offer. Cut that meat.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
In addition to their proclivity for dialing up a big pass rush, the Broncos are also tough at corner, where veteran Champ Bailey, while not the best at his position in the game any longer, is still very capable, and Tracy Porter, former Super Bowl hero for the Saints, line up. The Pats are going to have to be patient on offense against the Broncos D while staying committed to running the ball when necessary.
Of course, this all may be a moot point. Between their Week 15 meeting and the AFC Divisional round in the playoffs last year, the Pats scored a combined 86 points and gained 960 total yards against the Broncos. Still, their defense has allowed lass than 300 total yards in three of its first four games and they are currently seventh in the league in total defense.
When examining the Broncos strengths on defense, it seems to make sense for Brady and the Pats to be looking to get the ball out quickly and to the middle of the field. Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, as always, will be key in this regard, especially if Aaron Hernandez, who returned to practice on Thursday, is somehow able to go.
Attacking an opposing defense inside the numbers is a specialty of the Pats and Gronk had 10 catches for 145 yards and three of Brady's five TD passes in that playoff game last January. In other words, look for the Pats to again try to exploit any kind of match up they get with Gronk over the middle.
Should Brady be afforded the kind of time he got from his offensive line in last week's win over Buffalo, another team with what was at least supposed to be a vaunted pass rush, he could be looking at another big day. He carved the Broncos up both times he saw them last season and even though Denver has changed defensive coordinators since then, most of the players remain the same.
Add to that how proficient the Pats have looked on offense for the most part in each of the past two weeks as well as the fact that Denver was shredded by the only pass offense anywhere near as powerful as the Pats in Week 3 against the Texans and it's tough not to like this match up for them.
When the Broncos run the ball.
After being gouged by the run a couple weeks ago in Baltimore, the Pats got back to business in stopping it last week against the Bills. Neither of Buffalo's two star backs got anywhere near close to rolling in that game.
The Pats would be well served doing plenty of the same against Willis McGahee and the Broncos run game. Because even though it's Peyton Manning back there at QB as opposed to Ryan Fitzpatrick, forcing the majority of the burden onto his shoulders is the way to go.
McGahee has gained 325 yards at 4.7 yards a pop through four games so far this season, with three TDs. He's reemerged as a top shelf, NFL back and the Pats will want to key on him.
It will be incumbent on the Pats front four along with Brandon Spikes to handle McGahee and the rest Denver rushing attack. The last thing the Pats want is to have to commit any safety help in this regard. Safety is by far the weakest link in their defense and with starter Steve Gregory missing practice all week thus far, the position will be further weakened. Keeping Manning and the passing game at bay, specifically in the middle of the field (where the Pats were burned repeatedly last week in Buffalo), will be huge and if anyone from the back is forced to creep up in order to aid in slowing Denver's running game down, the Pats could be in big trouble.
In the two meetings last year, the Broncos never really got going on the ground, but that was with Tim Tebow at quarterback. The Pats simply loaded up to contain Tebow and Denver's backs and dared the Broncos to beat them through the air. Such a strategy will probably not work against Manning, who is just a little better than Tebow when it comes to throwing the ball.
Still, not having to dip into their secondary in order to slow down McGahee et al will be crucial for the Pats. Given how well they've played against the run thus far this season, they should be able to avoid that and win this match up.
When the Broncos pass the ball.
Don't pay any attention to this silliness about Manning's arm strength. His biggest attribute has always been recognizing the best place to put the ball and then putting it there, no matter how small a window he has. And there's been little evidence to suggest his ability to still do that has been compromised.
Outside of the first quarter of the Broncos Week 2 loss at Atlanta when he tossed three picks, he's been completely clean, to the tune of eight scores and zero interceptions.
Pats coach Bill Belichick said in his Wednesday press conference that what the Broncos have been running with Manning under center is "identical" to the offense the Colts ran as well as "95 percent different" than their offense last season when Tebow was calling signals. This should play into the hands of the Pats given how well Belichick knows Manning. But the players on the Pats defense still need to make plays and there may not be enough playmakers out there to do that.
Manning will work the middle of the field, utilize his tight ends and slot receivers (two of whom are Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley, former Colts themselves) and has a target in Demaryius Thomas who, while not in the same league, bears a resemblance, both physically and in his game, to Reggie Wayne.
The Pats will utilize plenty of sub packages on defense, with an extra corner or safety in the game to help combat Manning's tendencies. The problem is, outside of Devin McCourty and to a lesser extent, Kyle Arrington, who will be able to come up with any plays back there. Again, Gregory hasn't practiced yet this week. Ras-I Dowling has been banished since Week 2. Sterling Moore is a capable nickel back but hasn't had a great year. And Patrick Chung is... well, Patrick Chung.
For the Pats to have success against Manning, they'll have to get pressure from their defensive line as well as mix up their looks further back in an attempt to try to confuse him. A lot will depend on what happens prior to the snap when, as everyone who has ever seen Manning play, he will go through a variety of gesticulations and calls before checking the offense into the best possible play for the look that he sees. If the Pats don't adjust to that as it happens, they're dead.
The last time Manning faced the Pats two seasons ago as a Colt, the Pats won, forcing Manning into three picks and staving off a furious fourth quarter comeback attempt..
They'll take another three INT game on Sunday. The question is, can they force Manning into one?
Prediction: Patriots 34, Broncos 30
If this game isn't, a) a shootout, b) close, and c) a nail-biter that comes down to the fourth quarter, it will be a big surprise. The Broncos will be looking for a modicum of revenge thanks to the Pats blowing them out twice last season and Manning has had success against the Pats over the past few years of his career. The Pats are riding momentum from their big win in Buffalo last week, can attack and score on offense in a variety of ways, are younger and faster on defense and of course, still have Tom Brady. And, they're playing at home. All of that together, and it may be just a bit too much for Manning and Denver to overcome.